South Africa’s beloved Professor Phillip Tobias dies

Professor Tobias pictured here in front of the main building at Sterkfontein

It is with great sadness that the Gauteng Tourism Authority announces the death of Professor Phillip Tobias, a leading South African academic and scientist who shared a lifelong passion for the study of man and human ancestry with his colleagues at WITS University and the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Professor Tobias passed away this morning after a long illness.

Phillip Tobias was born in Durban, South Africa, on 14 October, 1925. In 1943 he enrolled as a medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand. Having deviated to complete a medical BSc, he was already teaching in the department by 1946. In 1951 he was appointed to a full time lectureship in the Department of Anatomy at Wits Medical School. He went on to obtain doctorates in medicine, genetics and palaeoanthropology. He was awarded a Rockerfellow Travelling Fellowship to tour the United States of America. He also did further studies at Cambridge University in England, which eventually awarded him an Honourary Doctorate.

In 1959 he succeeded Raymond Dart, the outgoing professor, to become the Head of Anatomy at Wits Medical School and the first South African born person in the Chair of any medical faculty in the country. He retained this position until his retirement over 30 years later. Upon his retirement he was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus, and he still regularly attended his office at Wits Medical School until his illness earlier this year. 

Professor Tobias (far right) stands at Sterkfontein

Tobias initiated the current programme of excavation at Sterkfontein in 1966. At present he has been associated with this excavation for more than half his life. It is the longest continuously active palaeoanthropological dig anywhere in the world, and has produced over 1 000 hominin fossils which is about one third of all hominin fossils ever found. In addition tens of thousands of fossils of animals which lived contemporaneously with human ancestors have been excavated, processed, described, analysed and classified, including type specimens (the first known example) of several creatures from the Plio-Pleistocene. The principal excavator under Tobias was Alun Hughes, who after his death was succeeded by Ron Clarke.

Tobias contributed significantly to the submission of “The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Environs” which was inscribed in 1999 and today is known as The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

Tobias was the principal writer in the description of the "Nutcracker Man", which was the type specimen of Zinjanthropus boiseii, (subsequently called Paranthropus boiseii and now called Australopithecus boiseii). The fossil was discovered in 1959 by Mary Leakey, whilst Tobias' description of it was eventually published in 1967.

Together with John Napeir and Louis Leakey, Tobias also described the type specimen of Homo habilis, colloquially called "handyman" in English, in recognition of the fact that the species was the earliest hominin which indisputably crafted and utilized stone tools.  Homo habilis was evidently a critical link between the relatively small brained Australopithecines and modern humans.

Phillip Tobias such a prolific writer that it is impossible to even list all his varied publications.  Selected works include Chromosomes, Sex-Cells and Evolution in the Gerbil and was his first book, an edited version of his thesis, which was published in London by Percy Lund-Humphries and company in 1956 under that title. A two volume work in the Olduvai Gorge Series was published in 1991. The autobiography which records the first 40 years of his life called Into the Past was published in 2006. Until recently he was working on a second book to record the rest of his life to date.

In addition he featured in television documentary series called Tobias' Bodies

During his extensive and extraordinary career, Tobias met and in most cases was in close contact with most of the significant figures in palaeoanthropology in the entire course of the 20th century. He described  Raymond Dart as his most memorable person, his teacher, his mentor, his friend and his predecessor. Tobias also knew Robert Broom, John Robinson, van Riet-Lowe, Louis and Mary Leakey, primatologists Jane Goodall and Dianne Fossey, and a host of other significant and influential scientists.  Tobias was also active in anti-apartheid politics, and was the chairman of NUSAS during his student years.

Tobias has always been dedicated passionate and diligent. He has been associated with the Medical School of the University of the Witwatersrand for over 65 years, a claim of loyalty and dedication which very few living scientists are able to match. 

Although Phillip Tobias never had a family, he said "I have taught over 10 000 students, and all of those are, in some small way, like my children. So it is not a genetic legacy that I leave, but rather a cultural one, orally transmitted through education, the value of which cannot be overemphasized. I like to believe that I have given something valuable to every one of them, and I can tell you quite honestly that almost every one of them has given something very valuable to me, and I remember them as my own family."

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